2019…And the Plot Thickens
*“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” Mark Twain
“There cannot be a crisis next week, my schedule is already full.” Henry Kissinger*
According to the Chinese calendar, 2019 is going to be a Pig year and since it is a water animal, it can be as murky and confusing as a mud pile, or as clear as Lake Tahoe. Today, I will attempt to turn the murkiness of the current market conditions into a clearer picture. My goal is to share relevant facts without distorting them, and make useful and actionable forecasts…so, let’s start.
Quick Wrap Up of 2018
Last year presented a typical case of a late cycle, a nowhere to hide scenario for most investors. Major asset classes, like stocks, bonds, commodities and precious metals, either lost money, or at best stayed even. In hind sight, had you bought a 1-year CD in Jan 2018, you would have beaten most professional money managers.
The usual suspects are trade wars with China, FED tightening, the Brexit mess and fears around a maturing economic and market bull cycle.
While this is true for the US, which seemed to have decoupled from the rest of the world, the global picture is bleaker. Industrial countries like Germany, Austria and Japan have posted negative economic growth numbers towards the year end, Australia’s real estate bubble had burst, emerging market stocks lost over 30% from peak to trough, and political uncertainty had been elevated.
As a result, even though year-end numbers don’t look too dreadful, we saw two waterfall declines during the year, the latter pushing major indexes to a bear territory. This downtrend, as usual, hit the winners of the previous cycle’s big winners the most, and those who argued President Trump was good for stocks, remained quiet for the big part of 2018.
A Roadmap for 2019
For the reasons mentioned above, the risk aversion levels have been elevated, and as a result, yields dropped, helping fixed income valuations recover. A case in point can be the 1-year high valuation of a popular investment grade corporate bond Exchange Traded Fund, symbol LQD.
But if risk aversion levels are elevated, what is the cause of the recent rally in the stock market? Two potential reasons:
1 – Technical: It isn’t unusual for initial panic selling to follow a bounce back, but only to retest the initial lows after.
2 – Fundamental: FED chairman Jerome Powell’s words on a “patient” FED has triggered the oversold rally.
Is it sustainable? Highly unlikely. Why?
Because even with a patient FED, the monetary base is still in Quantitative Tightening mode, not only in the US, but in more than 50% of the central banks across the globe.
From a technical view, in similar cases of 2000 and 2015, a bear market rally followed the initial waterfall decline, then a retest of the initial lows, and the resumption of the next bull cycle after capitulation. If we are experiencing anything like the years mentioned above, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more volatility for the next 6 months, and a recovery to follow after.
The Economy and Market Implications
The most recent Economist issue (Jan 26th-Feb 1st) cover probably says it all: Slowbalisation. Currently, the US economy is doing just fine, but the future is pointing to a slower growth. Here, we need to be clear with our terminology. Slow growth doesn’t mean a recession, recession doesn’t mean a depression, and depression doesn’t mean a crisis (don’t want to upset Henry Kissinger). The US economy seems to be far from a recession, but Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) signal for a slower growth. The US Q4 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate will likely be announced around 2.7%, much lower than the 3.4% in Q3.
I have looked up past periods of extremely low unemployment, and in all cases (1953, 1957, 1970 and 2000) a recession had followed. When I look at current valuations and sentiment, I liken it to the conditions of 2000, which was followed by a recession in 2001.
According to the IMF and OECD, global economy is expected to grow at a rate of 3.5% in 2019, isn’t that great? Not really. Global economy almost never experiences a recession in its most technical sense, which is negative growth two quarters in a row. The only exception to this since World War II was in 2008. According to OECD definitions, global growth rates below 3% is considered recessionary. The IMF is much stricter and conservative in this matter. But when we include the World Bank estimates as well, we can conclude that a global economic recession is not likely in 2019. According to Ray Dalio, the manager of the largest hedge fund in the world, 2020 will be when the rubber will hit the road, and he may very well be proven right.
So, one might ask, if unemployment, sentiment, valuations and stock market action remind us of past periods which were followed by a recession, why is this time expected to be different? Maybe it won’t be, but one tailwind for the US economy is credit conditions. The US is a debt driven consumer economy and as long as there is room for more borrowing, and the cost of carrying loans hasn’t started hurting new purchases, one lesson I have learned from being a market participant for many years, is to never discount the US consumer’s appetite for consumption. The recent rise in oil prices have improved corporate loan quality (these are highly leveraged businesses and they make a huge impact on the web of corporate financing) and the spillover effect is the improved loan quality.
Due to rising risk aversion, a shift from stocks to bonds, and fears of an economic slow-down, 10 year treasury yield unexpectedly dropped form 3.2% to 2.7%. Lower yields relieve the FED from its highly anticipated rate increases this year, and allow it to be more patient as Jerome Powell puts it. Another data point that makes me question the probability of rate increases, is the low inflation rate of around 2%. After years of quantitative easing, low unemployment, rising wages and economic growth, one would surely expect higher inflation. So, why not this time? Because most likely, the name of this uncharted territory is called the Amazon Effect. Each time the price of a particular good goes up, someone somewhere steps up to the plate and provides it at a cheaper cost online. The jury is still out in this discussion but automation and globalization have been a huge weight on inflation and even after 10 years after the 2008 debacle, deflation is still more of a serious threat to economies than inflation.
It would be a sin to not talk about China when discussing the global economy. I have already mentioned the problems Germany and Japan are in, but the biggest contributor to global economic growth has lately been producing forward looking indicators (PMI) pointing to a contraction in growth as well.
One bright star in this gloomy sky, has surprisingly been the UK, but I believe it is due to production that is pulled forward as a preparation for the Brexit approaching fast (or not…who knows?).
As market volatility rises and global economy starts looking gloomier, safe heavens like gold, Japanese Yen and Swiss Franc may benefit and so by definition, dollar may fall, which also may make non-dollar denominated investments more attractive, i.e. international stocks and bonds.
If this downside correction will look anything like past similar cases, valuations and investor sentiment need to drop a lot more before setting the conditions for the next bull cycle, and it is fair to expect a retest of the lows within the first half of the year and a recovery in the second. So, it’s probably wise to start the year defensive, and to switch and switch gears in the second half. In US sectors, chose non-cyclical and defensive areas like consumer staples, utilities and health care during the first half and switch to more cyclical sectors like tech, consumer discretionary and financials in the second. All of the information above are educated guesses, and your personal goals and risk profiles have to be added to the mix. So, what ever you do, tread carefully and consult with a professional.
The strategies discussed are strictly for illustrative and educational purposes and should not be construed as a recommendation to purchase or sell, or an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any security. There is no guarantee that any strategies discussed will be effective. The information provided is not intended to be a complete analysis of every material fact respecting any strategy. The examples presented do not take into consideration commissions, tax implications, or other transactions costs, which may significantly affect the economic consequences of a given strategy. The information provided is not intended to be a tax advice. Investors should be urged to consult their tax professional or financial advisers for more information regarding their specific tax situations.